Sunday, September 30, 2018

The LIMF, The Bulldog Grill, and the Sad Death of Rich Hughes

I promised you guys this one a couple of weeks ago, after hearing on News 12 that the Bulldog Grill in Amityville had burned down. However, work has been so heavy, and I've had so many shows that needed to be written up, that this is the first chance I've had to write about this.

Back in 1996, Denise's band The Slant played in the Long Island Music Festival, run by Good Times Magazine. This was years before I wrote for Good Times, and also before I had started the longislandmusicscene e-mail group or the Long Island Music Coalition. It was also before I managed either Blue Abyss or Chris Peters. My sole connection to the local music scene at the time was I had become The Slant's manager.

The Slant got into the LIMF at the last minute that year, as a substitute for another band that dropped out. (It was actually Holli of The Basals who got us in. When Rich Branciforte was frustrated that he had an open slot, Holli vouched that if he gave The Slant the entry, she knew they'd promote the show as hard as they could, and play with everything they had.)

The way the LIMF worked was that there were three rounds. At first-round shows, three bands competed, playing a full 40-50 minute set each. The winner was chosen by a combination of audience votes and judge's scores. But the way things were weighed, in practical terms, most of the time, the audience vote was what decided the contest. The judge's scores only really meant anything if the audience score was close. So, in effect, if you could drag enough of your friends and fans out, you were going to win the round. This put a band like The Slant at a disadvantage, insomuch as we were already in our '40s. We had friends, and by and large, they liked our music. But they were at a point in life where they were mostly married, with children they had to take care of, jobs they had to get up for, etc. Their club days were long over.

Here's what I remember about that year's festival. The Slant were assigned to play at Crawdadddy's in Amityville on a Thursday night. (This is the club that is currently known as Revolutions.) I don't remember who either of the bands were they were supposed to compete against. I do remember that one of them never showed up. I also remember it was scorching hot in the club. (I think the show was in the middle of July.) I think the other band played first, and The Slant played second. Joe Grandwilliams was the host (and maybe one of the judges? I'm not sure. In later years, to save on volunteers who were already spread thin, hosts also judged. But for some reason, I think in those early years, they did not.) One of the judges was local blues musician Kerry Kearney (who complimented the band after the show, and had a brief discussion about possibly covering their song "Junk Mail.")

I also remember that The Slant lost. I have a feeling they never had a chance, based on crowd vote anyway. I think we had a little more than 20 people there, but the other band had twice that much. And as it was, while the band played hard, it wasn't their best performance ever. Denise's monitor wasn't working well, I think, and Bill's voice was just flying out of his control because of the heat inside the club. But overall, it wasn't a bad experience. We'd proved we belonged there, and had at least made a respectable showing of ourselves.

So come 1997, armed with a much better idea of how the festival worked, I somehow talked the band into entering again. My hope was this time to at least take one round, and get to a semi-final show, which typically was performed in front of a few hundred people.

By this time, I'd made myself known to Rich B., even though I wasn't writing for him yet. And the week of the festival, I spoke to him on the phone, to learn where we'd be playing and when.

Rich was in upbeat mood. "I have hooked you up, my man!" he told me happily.

"Great!" I responded. "What have we got?"

"You'll be playing at The Bulldog Grill in Amityville. That's one of my best clubs." I'd never been there before, but OK.

"When?" I asked him.

"Wednesday night at 9 o'clock."

My heart sank. How in the hell were we going to get our 40-year-old peer group out to a club in Amityville at 9 o'clock on a Wednesday night? Friday night, maybe. Saturday, even better. But the middle of the week? We hadn't even played the first note, but already we were in big trouble.

It got worse. "Who are we playing with?"

"Nylon & Steel and The Soul Poets".

Thud! I heard the sound of my heart hitting the floor.

Nylon & Steel was also an older band. Not as old as we were, but maybe in their thirties. Old enough to at least have some of the same problems we were going to have getting their crowd out on a Wednesday night. I'd never actually heard them play, although I was familiar with them because they played on campus at Stony Brook all the time. I was pretty sure they were a jam band. (And Ian Wilder from the band was very active in the local Green Party, as was his wife.) I felt that we at least had a chance to compete with them.

But The Soul Poets were another story. The Soul Poets were a band in their twenties who had made it to the final round of the LIMF the year before. The finals themselves were all based on judge's scores, but the semi-finals were like Round 1, but even more so. In order to make it past the other bands and get to the finals, a band had to have a fairly massive audience draw. So they were going to draw a good crowd. And while I wasn't really into their brand of funk rock, they were a musically proficient band as well,  with a good stage presence that was bound to score high with the judges. (I seem to remember the lead singer sporting sunglasses and a tall Cat-in-the-Hat kind of headpiece.

You know how they say, "Never say die!"? Well I said it. Die. I hadn't even gotten off of the phone yet, but I pretty much knew my plans of helping The Slant get to the second round were doomed.

Awhile back, in my review of a local performance of Man of La Mancha on this blog, I spoke about Norse mythology, and how my understanding of it was that the gods knew from the beginning they were doomed, but the nobility was in trying anyway. It's not the most upbeat philosophy, but it works for me. So I figured if we most likely weren't going to win our round, I might as well have some fun with it.

Now in 1997, the Internet still wasn't that prevalent, at least not for me and people like me. (I think I was up and running on the net, and creating the longislandmusicscene list, by '99.) I promoted our shows the old fashioned way, sometimes with flyers hung around the area, but mostly with a mailing list of physical addresses, to which I sent out monthly mailers listing our upcoming shows. And sometimes, when necessary, instead of just listing a bunch of dates, I'd try to write something to catch people's attention and get them interested in a show. And if ever there was a show that needed all the creativity I could muster, it was this one. So I came up with the best promo I'd ever written.

I wrote it up like a mini-newspaper, under the heading Slant News. (I'd done one or two mailers like that before).

And the headline of my mini-newspaper was an eye-grabber. It said, in big, bold letters, "Hughes Offs Self."

What followed was one of my favorite things I've ever written, either before or after, and it was certainly the one that got me in the most trouble. Somewhere around the house, I still have a pack of these mailers left, and I looked around for them this week so that I could reproduce them for you here. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful, so I'll have to just describe it for you.

The gist of my "article" was that after speaking to Rich Branciforte and learning of The Slant's position in the Long Island Music Festival, I'd killed myself in a fit of despair. (Believe me, I thought about it. The best fiction always has a germ of truth to it.) The article described my method of suicide (by overdosing on Prozak), and my last words, which were quoted as, "Arghhhh!"

It included a mock interview with Rich Branciforte, the last person to hear me alive, who was baffled. He explained that I'd seemed so excited that he'd "hooked me up" that I was babbling and not making much sense. I quoted him: "Then he said something about 'ripping off my tentacles.' At least, I think he said 'tentacles'."

The article then went on to quote our drummer Rich, who used the occasion of my death to make a series of painful puns around words like "stiff" and "late". (And if you know Rich, puns are among his favorite things to create.)

It closed off by explaining that my wake was going to occur during The Slant's set this coming Wednesday night at the Bulldog Grill in Amityville, and quoted Denise as encouraging people to come out, hear the band play and pay their last respects to me. "And while you're here, don't forget yo buy a copy of our new CD, Try This. It's what Rich would have wanted," it quoted her as saying.

I felt great. I knew it probably wouldn't make a huge difference in our chances to win. In the end, our friends still had to work the next day. But at least I knew in my heart that I was promoting the show to the best of my ability. And I figured it would at least give our friends a laugh.

I showed it to the band, and they loved it. Well, most of them anyway.

When I showed it to Denise, she laughed. But she also warned, "You should really say somewhere on here that this is only a joke."

"Sweetie," I said, in my wisest, and most patronizing voice. "No one could possibly take this seriously. It's totally absurd. It says I died by an overdose of Prozak. It quotes my last words as 'Arghh,' for God's sake. Who could possibly believe it?"

She sighed, and said, "OK," in that tone that says, "It's your funeral."

And it was. Literally. I sent the mailers out without another thought.

Now, if I didn't know it before, this event solidified it for me -- Denise is basically one entire hemisphere of my brain, the one with the actual sense. Since that day, I've always paid extra careful attention to her advice.

I'd wanted to take the joke even further. There was a song in the band's repertoire called "Armadillo Road Pizza" on which I used to join the band to sing background vocals. (It was one of Bill's twisted little ditties.) I wanted to include the song in our setlist for the night. My plan was to wear a suit to the show, and lie flat on my back with my eyes closed and my hands folded over my chest, while the band played. Then, when the point came in the set for "Armadillo," I would jump up triumphantly and join them for a rousing rendition song. It would be great!

Denise, however, put her foot down for this one, and told me in no uncertain terms that if I did that, the band would be playing without its lead singer for the evening. Spoil sport! So reluctantly, I gave that idea up. (Just as well. I wasn't sure I could lie still for that long anyway.)

In those days, my day job was to be the house manager for a group of high-functioning developmentally disabled adults. I worked at a small agency in Queens that ran two group homes (of which my house was one) and two independent living programs for clients who were able to live in apartments with a minimum of supervision. I had taken the week of the LIMF off, probably in part to have the freedom to do what I needed to do for the festival.

On Wednesday, the day of the show, I'd scheduled a light day for myself. I did a couple of chores in the morning, then took a nice afternoon nap, looking forward to the night ahead.

At about five o'clock, the phone rang. Denise picked it up, said "Just a minute," and handed me the phone. It was Claudine, a lovely woman from the islands who was my assistant manager at the house. She was great at her job, so I had no fears about the taking the week off.

"Hello," I said.

"Richard?" she answered.

"Oh, hi Claudine," I responded, still somewhat sleepy.

"Richard?" she repeated.

"Yeah, it's me. What's up?"

"Richard?" she stammered, for a third time.

"Yes, it's me Claudine. Can you hear me?" I thought maybe we had a bad connection.

Her response stopped my heart cold. "They told me you were dead!"

I felt my stomach twist. "What?" I asked, but already I was starting to realize the implications of her words.

What had happened was this. The Slant had played at least one free show for our agency, and it was probably the best audience we ever had. There were also times when co-workers came out to Slant shows. And at least one of them was on our mailing list.

What I had failed to grasp was that English isn't everyone's first language. Most of our friends got the mailer, and understood it was a goof. Most of them laughed, although a few of them shook their heads a little at my sense of humor. But for someone who grew up speaking a different language, things like irony and absurdity don't always translate.

One person who worked at our agency (for whom English was not their first language) had received the mailer, and had taken it seriously. And what happened after that horrified me.

Claudine informed me that she and another co-worker had stayed up crying on the phone with each other the entire night last night, trying to understand what made me do it. They thought that Denise was a despicable person for using my death to sell her latest album, and theorized that I'd probably done it because she was cheating on me.

It got even worse. Claudine told me that Caroline, the woman who ran my agency, had been informed of my death. The agency had announced my sad passing over the loudspeaker of the main office, and they had held a moment of silence of me. At this very moment, Caroline was trying to arrange a babysitter for her children, so she could attend my wake at The Bulldog Grill in Amityville. (And unbeknownst to me, the Bulldog Grill was confusedly dealing with a series of phone calls asking them if there was a wake taking place there tonight. They calmly explained to people that they were a restaurant, and that the Department of Health frowned on restaurants hosting dead bodies in a place where you sold food.

Sitting on the bed behind me, Denise roared with laughter. At this point, all she could hear was my side of conversation with Claudine, which went something like, "Oh no!" "Oh God, no!" "Please don't tell me that." But that was enough.

I reassured Claudine that I was OK, and apologized profusely for putting her through so much pain. I then had to immediately phone my boss, before she left the house for my "wake". I was damned lucky I wasn't fired for my stupidity. I was also lucky about one more thing -- the agency didn't announce my death to my house residents right away. The story of my death had circulated throughout the agency's staff, but they had taken an extra day or so to think about they were going to break it to the clients.

By this time, I didn't even want to go to the show. I was terrified that I'd missed someone, and was going to run into some poor person who had rearranged their lives in order to come out and pay their respects to me.

"Why don't you just drop me off at Crawdaddy's, and pick me up after the show?" I asked Denise.

"Oh no," she told me emphatically. "You're coming."

As it turned out, the night went OK. Between myself, Claudine and Caroline, we had caught everyone in time before people started turning out for the wake. The show went pretty much the way I thought it would -- The Slant played well, as did Nylon & Steel, but The Soul Poets won the night. The club was pretty full, so they were happy, which meant that Rich Branciforte was happy.

I did later hear from one friend, another person for whom English was not their first language, who had also taken the mailer seriously, and who was a little miffed at me for my strange sense of humor. But she was living in Los Angeles at the time, so although I accidentally upset her, at least she hadn't tried to attend my funeral.

I really did learn a lesson. A couple of them, actually. The first was to always listen to Denise. She has way more common sense than I do. The second was to never just assume that people understood that something is a joke.

But an a-hole is still an a-hole. So the next month, I dutifully sent out a copy of The Slant News, apologizing to anyone who hadn't understood that my "death" was all in jest, and promising never to make up an absurd story like that again.

However, below the apology, in National Enquirer style, I ran a second story, describing the birth in a local hospital of a healthy three-headed Elvis baby. And Tom, our keyboard player, did some Photoshop magic to create a lovely picture of a newborn baby's body with three Elvis Presley heads superimposed on it.

So like I said, an a-hole is an a-hole.

But really, I don't think I've ever done anything quite that stupid again.